One athlete’s recovery story and how to take care of your joints while being active.
Submitted by Mississippi Valley Surgery Center
There are over 900 ligaments in the human body—each one with a critical role to help you move. Ligaments help connect and stabilize bones, joints, and organs and if just one of these small bands of tissue is torn, or even sprained or overstretched, you’ll feel it immediately. That was definitely the case for 17-year-old Piper Seberg when she tore a major ligament in her knee: the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
“I was playing in an indoor soccer game and I had stuck my leg out and another player fell on it.” Piper said. “I felt that one pop, and immediately knew it was probably my ACL.”
Right away, Piper turned to the experts at Orthopaedic Specialists and Mississippi Valley Surgery Center (MVSC), located in Davenport, Iowa, for a diagnosis. Piper met with Dr. Kristyn Darmafall and had an MRI which revealed she was right; she had torn her ACL as well as her meniscus.
Unfortunately, Piper’s story isn’t unusual. ACL injuries are one of the most common types of knee injuries, and they’re especially common in people who play sports that require sudden changes in direction.
However, a knee injury can happen to anyone. The knee is a critical joint and when it’s sprained or torn, it can lead to swelling, stiffness, and instability that can change daily life. While knee injuries are very common, so are complete recoveries for pain-free life. No one should live with pain, and with the right medical care, you don’t have to.
Knowing When to Sit Out
You know the old saying “no pain, no gain”? Sometimes pain doesn’t offer the upside of a “gain” and requires medical attention. When nagging joint pains change your activity level or how you live your life, it’s time to take action.
For Piper, the need for help with her knee was obvious when she had trouble walking off the soccer field. In a situation like that, it’s important to get the proper care quickly so that further joint damage isn’t caused.
“After the diagnosis, I was scheduled for surgery,” Piper said. “But right away, I had to stabilize my knee and get the swelling down.”
Inability to walk is a clear sign that medical attention is needed, but some ligament tearing isn’t as debilitating or obvious. Knee pain can be caused by a variety of reasons and may be something that you might try and “wait out” to see if it heals on its own. It might only be a nagging pain that comes and goes, but, if left untreated, there’s a possibility that a small tear could increase in size or put more stress on other areas of the knee.
While it can be difficult, slowing down to address joint pain is always the way to go. With today’s medical technologies and wide variety of treatments from teams like Orthopaedic Specialists and MVSC, those with chronic pain can find complete relief for a pain-free life.
Two ACLs, One Goal of Recovery
The solution to knee pain, and specifically ACL tearing, depends on the severity of the tear. While minor sprains may be able to heal with therapy treatments, but full tears cannot be healed without surgery. To identify the best steps ahead, an MRI is usually done.
When Piper met with Dr. Darmafall, it was clear that surgery was the best solution for her to reach a full recovery. Piper was eager to make a full recovery and get back to playing soccer. She was scheduled for an outpatient surgery at MVSC where Dr. Darmafall was able to reconstruct her ACL with a replacement band of tissue, called a graft tendon. The surgery experience itself was a breeze, and Piper was able to recover at home.
“My surgery was in the morning, and then I stayed at MVSC for about an hour before getting to go home,” Piper said. “Recovering at home was really nice.”
Getting the right support and expertise was critical for Piper during her recovery, so much so, that when she tore her other ACL, she went right back to Dr. Darmafall for help.
“I tore both of my ACLs two years apart,” Piper said. “I tore my second ACL the summer going into junior year. I was back to playing soccer and was running side-by-side with another player and just planted my foot wrong and went down.”
By this time, Piper’s first ACL tear was feeling 100 percent. She was hopeful Dr. Darmafall could create that outcome again.
“Dr. Darmafall was great to work with,” Piper said. “Anytime I had a question, she was always there. She’d see me if I needed help even if I didn’t have an appointment. I knew it was going to be hard to recover again, but I knew what I needed to do to get better.”
Putting in the Work
A huge part of any surgery is the recovery afterwards. With ACL surgeries, it’s a common progression that physical therapy is started soon after the surgery is completed to alleviate pain and swelling and help restore the joint’s range of motion and mobility.
That was the case for Piper’s recovery. After follow-ups and check-ins with Dr. Darmafall, she began working with a physical therapist after both surgeries to strengthen her quadriceps (thigh muscles) and eventually gained enough strength to be back to running (and playing soccer) again.
“We started with little exercises like flexing your quads and just trying to get more extension,” Piper said. “Then we moved into stability with weights. I knew that if I wanted to get back to normal, I needed to do everything I possibly could and really listen to the therapists and do my exercises.”
Listening to your body and the pain you feel is a critical part of taking care of your joints. For Piper, as she’s still recovering from her second ACL tear, she takes special precautions.
“I’m still wearing a brace for my most recent tear on my left leg,” Piper said. “I’m pretty close to totally normal, but sometimes I still ice my knee after a game and it’ll be fine the next morning.”
For Piper, a lifelong soccer player, missing a season was hard on her both physically and mentally. But today, she’s back and kicking after recovering from her second ACL tear, thanks to the work of Dr. Darmafall’s surgical intervention.
“After the second tear, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to play again,” Piper said. “And now I’m back out on the field. I love all the girls I play with and it’s always been a big part of my life. It means a lot for me to be back.”